The Mummy


The Mummy was one of the most offensive films I have ever seen.

I am not talking about its racial and sexual attitudes, although these would have been unacceptable 40 years ago. Arabs are smelly, the English are stuck up, foreigners are poor, Americans are loud and vulgar, and gee, get this fellas, she's a gurl but she's clever, but that's okay because she, get this, wears glasses and knocks the furniture over. This is the nineties; we believe in cultural diversity and religious toleration. Fundamentalism is the great evil—but naturally, this doesn't meant that we can't make horror films about the blood-curdling religious practices of lesser breeds without the law.

Nor am I talking only about its out-of-control cynicism. The alleged hero is quite specifically created as Han Solo without the redeeming features. But it is only the redeeming features which make Han Solo interesting. Likeable rogues are a decent adventure story plot device. Rogues without redeeming features are called 'villains'. In The Mummy, all the sympathetic characters are cynical, callous and self-seeking; the very few noble characters are represented as ludicrous and silly. The head of the secret religious order dedicated to saving the universe from the resurrected evil Egyptian mummy demi-god priest specifically says that it's okay to kill as many innocents as you want, because the danger to the world is so great. The one heroic character—a burned out RAF fighter pilot—is ridiculed in every single scene he appears it, including his death, which is played for laughs. Hey, kids: it’s ludicrous to be heroic; what is cool is to be unshaven and cynical. The first time we see the hero, he is dishevelled and savage behind bars in a prison; he grabs the heroine and kisses her forcibly. But hey, that's what all gurls really want. Once he gets out of jail he brushes his hair and smartens himself up. So that's all right then.

I could have forgiven it, just about, its non-existent script. This has become a fact of August at least since Batman: summer films don't have scripts, they have sequences of random, unrelated scenes and a few lines of muttered dialogue to make the audience think that there is something which links them together. So let's not worry about why it is a form of torture to imprison someone with flesh eating beetles when he's already been mummified, or wonder why you introduce plot devices like the six or possibly seven jars which contained the revivivicated mummy's vital organs, and then forget about them; or to have secret orders of Egyptian priests guarding pyramids and mummy's tombs and then saying 'Allah be with you' at the end. We don't expect it to make sense.

Do not say at this point 'Oh, come on Andrew, it was only meant to be a bit of hokum, an entertaining no-brainer.' Entertaining no-brainers are still allowed to have scripts which make sense. Scripts which make sense are no more expensive to write than scripts which do not make sense. Borris Karloff's The Mummy made a great deal of sense, on its own, modest terms. (So, in fact, did Plan Nine From Outer Space.) The Mummy makes no sense because the producer chose to make to make a film which makes no sense, because he despises his art form and his audience. Chunks of the movie showed signs of being the product of editorial brain storming sessions, where people who had not bothered to research the subject tried to remember things about Egypt. 'Er…book of the dead. Pyramids. Cats. Moses. Scarab beetles. Sandstorms. Right, fine, that's enough to base a movie on.' At one point, someone says, apropos nothing, that when the mummified priest god gets brought back to life, he will bring with him the 10 Plagues of Egypt. I assume that this arose because someone at the script conference had just seen Prince of Egypt. In a vague sort of way, some locusts wander across the screen, and someone notices that he has a plague of blood in his gin and tonic. And then, someone says 'The last and worst of plagues of Egypt—sores and boils' and that's the last we see of it. The last and worst of plagues of Egypt, according to my Bible at any rate, was death of the first born. But who is counting?

No: what offended me about the film was the attitude that it appeared to have to its audience, and, more to the point, the attitude that it appeared to expect the audience to have to it. The film appeared to take it as read that you would think that it was a load of rubbish; that the writers thought that it was a load of rubbish, and indeed, that all the characters thought that it was a load of rubbish. And this, effendi, is the post-modern condition.

Computer animation has reached a point where practically everything that a writer can visualise can be made to happen on the screen, whether that is dinosaurs, the sinking of the Titanic, or Prince William smiling. While it’s a relatively time-consuming process, it no longer requires great reserves of ingenuity. As recently as Wrath of Kahn it was possible to go to see a sci-fi movie and sneer at the strings, wobbly sets matte lines and sparklers. Nowadays, no-one but a computer artist can spot technical flaws in special effects: anything a writer can describe or an artist can sketch can be reproduced on the screen. There is no sense (as in, say Kong or Jason and the Argonauts) that what we are watching is a elaborate and very clever conjuring trick: to all intents and purposes, the mummies, the sandstorms and the plagues of locusts are real. However, because the process is so relatively easy—and because the audience knows that it is so relatively easy ('hey, cool CGI') it all comes across as less real, less meaningful, less important than when the monsters were being manipulated frame by frame over a series of decades by Ray Harryhausen's own fair hand. The script writer knows this, and hence, every potentially dramatic or frightening scene is undercut by a stupid or vulgar remark by the ghastly cast. It is impossible to believe that the script writers actually believed the lines they were writing to be funny: but they clearly thought that the fact that the characters were treating the situation flippantly was funny in itself. When special effects were hard to do, the actors had to work hard to look scared, to look as if they believed in what was going on; the script writer and director had to struggle to create an illusion. When it was done sufficiently well, the audience could be carried along with it even if the monster was a man in an unconvincing rubber suit or some dodgy back projection. Now special effects are easy to do, and indistinguishable from reality, the director, script writer, and actor don't think that they need to try. And pity the poor actor, slaving away in a blue room trying to look scared of something which isn't there. No wonder they find it hard to it seriously. But still: it's a bizarre, neurotic mind-set. You spend a hundred million trillion billion dollars creating a wonderful illusion of a sword fighting mummy; and then you encourage the audience to say 'Ha-ha, big deal—it isn't real.'

'It takes a clever human' says Screwtape 'to make a joke about virtue; but any human can behave as if virtue is funny.'

The target audience of The Mummy is the 'fuck you!' generation. Its main character is a dislikable, knowing half-wit who has no values, and who believes in nothing, not even the adventure he blunders into. At every turn, it encourages the viewer to feel the same. Love is not of value. History is not of value. Innocent lives are not of value. Heroism is not of value. Other people's religions are not of value. Culture is not of value. Learning is not of value. Love is not of value. A bag of pilfered gold in your camels saddle bag may just possibly be of value. This film is not of value, oh god, is this film not of value. Don't boo the baddies and cheer the goodies; don't tremble at the horror or thrill at the adventure, but if you like, join in with the hero when he sneers at the action.

This film is what is wrong with the world right now. If I thought that it was going to be a box-officer success—if I thought that it really represented the attitude of young people (I am not, of course, na´ve enough to suppose that a film of any kind influences the attitudes of young people)—then I would do something desperate like join the Conservative Party. I'm serious; if the only way the sneer can be wiped off the British face is to re-introduce hanging and school caps, then I'm not at all sure that it isn't a price well worth paying.

Ten plagues of Egypt on both your houses.

Yes, but what did you think of The Phantom Menace?